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Reflecting on Iran, Social Media, and Change

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Viewed through Western eyes, the information-enabled 2009 Iran protest movements were an irresistible force pitted against a brittle and hapless regime. Such a view overemphasized the role of technology in what was fundamentally an old-school social uprising. Still, some authors see the failure of the Iranian protest movement as a sign of technological hubris. A more realistic view of social movements and information politics is needed. Social media, while important in enabling mobilization and organization, is not necessarily decisive.

In 1995, John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt coined the term "netwar" to describe the Mexican Zapatistas, a local guerrilla group that utilized emerging technologies and globalization to draw foreign human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, and activist groups into their ultimately successful struggle. Four years later, a decentralized collective of networked activists utilizing creative street tactics caught the Seattle police by surprise in the 1999 "Battle of Seattle." Since then, many have overestimated the power of networked social movements, especially social media-enabled groups struggling against repressive regimes. Arquilla and Ronfeldt understood what some contemporary tech-boosters did not: information-age struggles share many principles of industrial-era action.

To use a military analogy, even Twittering activists still must observe time-honored principles such as mass, main effort, and unity of command. A poorly chosen center of gravity or a lack of sufficient power massed at the decisive point can doom even the most well-organized endeavor. The Mexican Zapatistas, for example, understood that Mexico's center of gravity was the prestige of the ruling administration, and applied pressure accordingly in the right places. The Iran protests' center of gravity was political-military regime elites and clerics. Clerics beginning to tire of the regime's mismanagement constituted the decisive point. Unfortunately, not enough dissident Iranian clerics rallied to the side of the protesters, allowing the regime to eventually crush the demonstrators.

The chief challenge of any networked organization is to transform information into real-world power. Many take the trite phrase "information is power" as an article of faith, but information alone is insufficient to create material or political power. A green Twitter profile with hundreds of thousands of foreign followers is not the stuff of revolution. Lenin's dexterous political maneuvering and ruthlessness created the Russian Revolution, not the favorable press of foreign journalists such as John Reed.

Failure to effectively transform information into power enables centralized opponents to gather enough material might together to stall, suffocate, or outright eliminate embryonic social movements. Decentralization can give networked movements an initial tactical advantage against slow-moving centralized forces but it takes discipline, organization, and sequencing to exploit tactical successes. The ephemeral quality of "flash mobs" can work against networked movements as well, as digital assemblages can disintegrate as hastily as they emerge.

It is also worth pointing out that the 2008 Obama campaign, usually cited as a prominent digital success story, employed many of the classical principles of social organizing that the President learned firsthand in his days as a community organizer. Technology was employed to network grasssroots organizations into the national campaign.

Networked social movements are still in a immature stage. But as information campaigners grow more experienced, skilled, and above all else pragmatic the quality of digital campaigns is sure to improve. Perhaps tyrants will come to fear Twitter. But until then we should take a realistic view of networked social movements' mobilizing power. Social media adds another dimension to political conflicts and activism, but not a necessarily decisive one.